F. Al-Atraqchi: Mourning the Loss of Objectivity

Published: Fri 20 Dec 2002 03:17 PM
Mourning the Loss of Objectivity
By Firas Al-Atraqchi
As the world becomes an increasingly more dangerous place with divisions being drawn along cultural, ethnic and religious lines, the role of journalism becomes crucial.
Journalists and the media act as de facto watchdogs of government. They report on how government is performing and, in a democracy, this reporting is pivotal to the electoral process. How else would the people know which representatives they should elect? The media tentatively issues a literary report card, a progress report critique.
Journalists also have the secondary role of acting as watchdogs over their own profession, safeguarding it from sensationalism, yellow journalism, hearsay, and slander. It is up to journalists to ensure that their profession remains unbiased, objective, and not cater to special interest groups, censorship, or government control.
Journalists are burdened with serving society by providing information and an understanding of issues in an ethical manner. Ergo the concept of journalism ethics, which provides a guideline for correcting excesses and ensuring that irresponsible journalism does not threaten a free society.
The 1970s witnessed the peak of ethical journalism in the U.S. It was during this period that the Washington Post, endowed with investigative reporting, was able to effectively hold government accountable. This practice of ethical and investigative journalism led to the demise of U.S. President Nixon for his role in the Watergate scandal.
Investigative journalism becomes distinctive in that it publicizes information about wrongdoing that affects the public interest. In the 1970s, public critique in the media was highlighted by the work of highly competent reporters rather than from information leaked to newsrooms through news briefings or news conferences.
Where has the spectacular and democratic utility of investigative journalism gone? It is the position of this author that ethical journalism has collapsed under the free market system, adopting new strategies to succeed in a fiercely competitive domain. Global media ownership, sensitivity to allegations of anti-Semitism, and the influence of special interest groups have caused the demise of investigative journalism.
In Canada, for example, local editors who oppose the media moguls find themselves sanctioned and summarily fired, tantamount to excommunication. Such is the case with several editors who have opposed the editorial room policies of CanWest, a media empire led by the family of Israel Asper.
Ultimately, when investigative journalism ceases to exist, its role as a vanguard of democracy is also diminished. By losing such an important and responsible arm of democratic institutions, the nation itself stands to lose sight of democracy.
During the 1991 Gulf War, CNN became a household name for being the only foreign news network broadcasting live from Baghdad. CNN's worldwide reputation flourished as the 'little network that could' became the world's prime deliverer of broadcast news.
In recent months, however, CNN has become a far cry from the vision that helped launch its field journalists into parts unknown. Rather, it has reached the final stages of rapid degeneration from an objective news organization into an insipid, anachronistic, overly-militant, gung-ho mouthpiece of a cabal of policymakers who are determined to lead the world to another war.
Last week, conflicting reports concerning the progress of the UNMOVIC team emerged. U.S. President Bush received repeated coverage on CNN when he said that "the signs from Iraq are not encouraging." Conversely, the UNMOVIC inspection team had told reporters in previous days that Iraq was cooperating fully: Mohammed El Baradei, director of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), told the BBC, "We are off to a good start, but we are far from being able to reach a conclusion. We are not keen to rush to a conclusion … I hope the world will bear with us."
Hans Blix, head of UNMOVIC, told the Spanish newspaper, El Pais, "There have been no impediments. We didn't expect any. That is pleasing."
In such a case, it becomes the duty, indeed the moral and ethical obligation of competent journalists, to intrude upon this contradiction and find the root elements which give rise to it.
Disappointingly, that did not happen. CNN anchors proceeded to reiterate the Bush statement every hour on the hour. In a 24-hour news period, CNN replayed the Bush statement with nary a single question being asked.
A question that should have been asked: "Mr. President, why are you saying the signs are not encouraging when the UNMOVIC team, including the two heads of the mission, say the Iraqis are cooperating?"
Is the role of the journalist to become a circus monkey, mimicking every master's move and nodding its head in silent servile obedience?
When U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan praised his team for inspecting a sensitive site unannounced and without a 'diplomatic' entourage in tow, CNN gave him no coverage. Instead, it reported on U.S. Vice President Cheney's belief that war is necessary in Iraq.
In an article published in the Baltimore Sun (Is Bush Too Ready to Pounce on Iraq? - December 2, 2002) Jules Witcover writes:
"Now that the inspections of Iraqi facilities in a search for weapons of mass destruction have begun, there seem to be two distinct aspirations among those awaiting reports. President Bush, who never wanted to work through the U.N. in the first place, has indicated he won't wait for a mountain of evidence before declaring there has been a further material breach and attacking, with or without the U.N."
Witcover criticizes the lack of debate on war authorization powers, saying that only Congress has the authority to declare war:
"Those who believe the president in the era of terrorism should have this power ought to seek a constitutional amendment, not dance around the matter."
Witcover may have a difficult time getting such a debate. While the media should have questioned, as Witcover did, why there is no such debate, CNN and others continue voicing political statements and support. Hardly ethical journalism.
Has CNN then become an official mouthpiece for war?
The answer may be found in a controversial meeting between CNN head Walter Isaacson and senior Republican party leaders in early August 2001; Isaacson announced that he wanted to "attract more right-leaning viewers to the sagging network and improve its image with conservative leaders."
Isaacson met with Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), Senate Minority (at the time) Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.), House GOP Conference Chairman J.C. Watts (Okla.), Rep. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) and Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) and discussed strategy. These Republican heavies strongly back the current administration's push for war in Iraq.
Commenting on the meeting, Joseph Farrah of WorldnetDaily said:
"I've got to tell you there is something unseemly about watching Isaacson cozy up to some of the most powerful people in the country seeking advice and favor. That's not proper. That's not appropriate. That's not journalistically responsible. Instead, what CNN should be doing is burning down politicians of all persuasions with equal gusto - showing no favoritism, being an equal opportunity offender."
Hoping to garner right-leaning viewers, CNN has turned to the right. Their new strategy includes:
a. Routinely host far-right conservatives such as Reverend Jerry Falwell, infamous for calling Islam's Prophet a terrorist and blaming the 9-11 tragedies on 'the gays of America';
b. Routinely host anti-Arab and anti-Muslim pundits such as Frank Gaffney, Richard Perle, Jonah Goldberg, and Thomas Friedman;
c. Have Christiane Amanpour belligerently question Hans Blix (amidst calling him incompetent and clumsy); Blix has come under attack in U.S. media and by U.S. Congressional leaders;
d. Have Connie Chung make malicious accusations while interrogating former Saudi Intelligence head Prince Turki; Saudi Arabia has become the new punching bag;
e. Ridicule Iraqi leaders, giving prominence to such stories as "Saddam likes to be kissed on his armpits";
f. Savagely criticize the FBI's report on a 2000 percent jump in racially-motivated attacks against Muslims and Arabs in 2001. On Sunday, December 1, Kate O'Beirne effectively told American Muslims to quit whining about hate crimes committed against them in the wake of 9-11. She claimed that the rise was from a "measly 28 to 486" attacks. O'Beirne's outburst is deplorable: she needs to be reminded that thousands of American Muslims feared coming to the FBI or contacting local authorities. Instead, she asked, "What about the thousands of attacks against Jews?" Jews? Where? Where were thousands of Jews attacked? In the U.S.? Or is she misinforming her viewing audience by referring to attacks on Israelis in Israel and Palestine? Incidentally, O'Beirne is editor of National Review and previously a vice president of the Heritage Foundation, both of whom call for an attack on Iraq without U.N. approval, and the expulsion (alias for killing) of Palestinian President Yasser Arafat;
g. Confuse the issues on by creating headlines such as "Ramadan Threat" (December 5, 2002) so that the uninformed viewers make the connection between the Islamic holy month of Ramadan and terrorism. Subtle, yet effective, hate mongering. The issue at hand involves al Qaeda issuing a threat to inflict some terrorist attack during the Eid-ul-Fitr Ramadan Feast. Calling it a "Ramadan Threat" infers that all of Islam and all Muslims are making the terrorist threat.
On Thursday, December 5, Daryn Kagan declared, "Obviously, Iraq wants to delay for time by delivering a thousand page report." Kagan apparently, or intentionally, overlooked the fact that U.N. resolution 1441 demands Iraq deliver a full, comprehensive, final, and detailed account of all its weapons, including items that are considered of dual use. U.N. weapons inspectors had earlier noted that the dual use clause could mean several thousand pages in the report. Dual use includes items that range from machines which make plastic shoes, contraceptives, and antibiotics, to chemicals for agricultural purposes, yeast fermentation, and research.
Further misinformation: Same day, same network - Suzanne Malveaux, standing outside the White House, says the U.S. administration is highly skeptical of Iraqi intentions, especially after UNMOVIC discovered mustard gas in some Iraqi shells. Proof to go to war? Hardly. Malveaux failed to report one little factoid: The mustard gas was already discovered (and documented) by UNSCOM inspectors some four years earlier. They left Iraq in 1998 before destroying the shells. UNMOVIC returned to find the same shells still there, waiting to be destroyed.
On Saturday, December 7, Miles O'Brien talking to Rym Brahimi reporting live outside the Iraqi Ministry of Information:
"Rym, you are outside the [Iraqi] Ministry of Information, we should call it the Ministry of Propaganda, or the Ministry of Disinformation..."
Mourn the death of objectivity.
[Firas Al-Atraqchi, B.Sc (Physics), M.A. (Journalism and Communications), is a Canadian journalist with eleven years of experience covering Middle East issues, oil and gas markets, and the telecom industry.]

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